Today in Labor History: Paul Robeson dies

On January 23, 1976, noted singer and actor Paul Robeson died in Philadelphia.

Robeson was also a legendary civil rights and peace leader and athlete.

He was hounded by McCarthy-era witch-hunting committees, deprived of his livelihood and his right to travel for his actions and his beliefs.

Ironically, soon after the turn of the century, Robeson’s fame was carried throughout the nation by a beautiful 37-cent postage stamp bearing his portrait and calling him “an incomparable artist and singer, human rights advocate, scholar and athlete, defender of Black freedom.”

Many events were held in 1998 on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Calling Robeson “a great fighter for equality and world peace, a genius who gave his heart and soul to the people,” Jarvis Tyner, executive vice chair of the Communist Party USA, said he “embraced all the advanced ideas of the CPUSA, the need for a socialist transformation of society, for unity of Black, Brown and white. If you look at his writings and you know the party’s history and policies,” Tyner added, “he was an important figure, helping to give leadership in the party’s formulation of its policies.”

Paul Robeson, athlete, scholar, singer, actor and civil rights advocate, rose to fame at a time when segregation was legal in the U.S., and Black people were being lynched by racist mobs.

Robeson’s father, a runaway slave, graduated from Lincoln University, and his mother came from an abolitionist Quaker family.

Robeson attended Rutgers University on a four-year academic scholarship. He won 15 varsity letters and was twice named to the All-American football team. He became Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year and graduated as valedictorian.

At Columbia Law School, Robeson met and married Eslanda Cardoza Goode, who would become the first Black woman to head a pathology laboratory. He took a job in a law firm, but left when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. He then shifted to an acting and singing career.  

Because Robeson was an outspoken activist, striking workers and peace and friendship with the Soviet Union, he was targeted by the McCarthy era witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee. Robeson refused to yield to the committee, which he considered to oppose freedom of expression of those working for international friendship and peace. He is famously quoted: “The artist must elect to fight for Freedom or for Slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”

Sixty of his concerts were cancelled, and in 1949 two interracial outdoor concerts in Peekskill, N.Y., were attacked by racist mobs. “I’m going to sing wherever the people want me to sing,” Robeson responded, “and I won’t be frightened by crosses burning in Peekskill or anywhere else.”

In 1950 the government revoked Robeson’s passport, leading to an eight-year battle to win it back and to travel again.

Beginning in 1952, the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union sponsored four annual Robeson concerts at Peace Arch Park on the U.S.-Canadian border, with as many as 40,000 in attendance.

Photo: September 1942, Paul Robeson, world famous baritone, leading Moore Shipyard [Oakland, CA] workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner, at their lunch hour recently, after he told them: “This is a serious job—winning this war against fascists. We have to be together.” Source: Still Picture Records Section, Special Media Archives Services Division (NWCS-S), National Archives at College Park, MD.



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People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.